Playing Obscure Demo Music Doesn’t Help Effectively Sell Audiophile Gear

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Right now, I’m on a crappy flight in United (seat 1E on a crappy old Trump-Shuttle-era  757) en route home from a very well-attended and produced AXPONA 2023 audiophile show. Props the the AXPONA people, who put a lot of thought into the show details, ranging from booking most of the show attendees on a “quiet floor” at a low-cost-but-great-service Hyatt Regency nearby, to having empty hotel rooms open on each floor for bathroom breaks, to installing foam stops on doors to keep them from repeatedly slamming shut during demos. 

While I was at the show, I met a number of families where dads brought their sons and daughters to enjoy the experience of listening to music played on a variety of excellent systems. In a very chance encounter, I met a group of 22-year-old engineering students who are burgeoning audiophiles and who drove from college in Iowa to learn more about the hobby (if they follow up with me, I will be sure to help them open some serious doors in ways that will assuredly get them hired with their first jobs with their engineering degrees). There were a number of very good-sounding room all over the venue and a good time was had by all. Simply put, it has been a long time since many of us have been able to safely or comfortably meet in person like this. I was able to see my dear friend Sandy Gross (founder of Polk, Definitive Technology, and GoldenEar Technology) in person for the first time since COVID. We must have spoken 50 plus times since then but in-person just felt better.

Families at AXPONA 2023
There were a number of families attending AXPONA 2023 in Chicago which is a sight for sore eyes.

One niggling thing kept creeping into my consciousness, though—the fact that so many audiophile companies were playing obscure music almost exclusively. Don’t get me wrong: some audiophile industry person likely put a lot of time into finding really great-sounding music to highlight the specific benefits of their gear and/or audiophile systems. The problem is that when the typical audio enthusiast listener has literally zero connection to the musical content being played, there is no good way to tell just how good a component is or how it might perform in your system. You can politely nod, but in many ways you are wasting your time listening to some random  track that might sound like angels singing from heaven in that moment, but how will it sound in your system? Will it be an improvement over the equipment installed in your system? Without a musical reference you really have no idea what you are really listening too.

Years ago, when I worked for Mark Levinson and Joe Cali at Cello Music and Film Systems in West Hollywood, we were often guilty of the same offense. Most audiophile folks think of Mark as an equipment designer, but in reality he is much more of a musician, recording engineer, entrepreneur, and world-class audiophile salesman. This was back in the mid-1990s when Mark was using Schoeps mics, Apogee analog-to-digital converters, and a 24-bit Nagra reel-to-reel deck to record all sorts of unique and diverse music. Mark’s recordings of the last living blues legends in the Mississippi Delta are legendary (this is from his post-Cello Red Rose Music era project) and had become a bit of a secret demo that even people like Harman (long after buying the Mark Levinson brand) used in their own demonstrations. With that said, most people that we played either the Compact Disc or the ¼-inch master tape for had no musical reference. Mark went even deeper with even more obscure, close-mic’ed live recordings of exotic Indian and Indonesian instrument that, even with a music degree from a good music school, I had no idea what these instruments were supposed to sound like. Were they impressive? Damn right, they were, but they weren’t anywhere close to musically relatable. The 24-bit audio was also a way to digitally turbo-charge our Cello system to sound better than anything that you were going to hear in 1994. The fact was that we just had more zeros and ones in our recordings than everybody else playing traditional 16-bit 44.1 kHz resolution from Compact Disc. People could hear the difference and that justified the astronomical prices that we charged back in the day, as Cello systems ranged from $60,000 to about $350,000 in the mid-1990s. We also sold products like Aragon, Adcom, NHT, and MartinLogan, too, and the same concepts worked just as well with this gear. 

When I work with my editorial staff on fine-tuning and improving our content, we talk a lot about musical selections for our reviews. The game-changing evolution, for us as online content creators, was the ability to embed YouTube videos into the reviews. This allows readers of FutureAudiophile.com to hear the music we’re talking about, versus the old way of just bloviating with words, trying to describe music. Take it from me: it’s hard enough to find non-pretentious words to describe audio, let alone music. What I tell my reviewers is to look at the entire spectrum of musical cliché from zero to 100. Zero is the most obscure Icelandic funeral procession music or Indonesian Gamelan recordings that have 100 instruments and a time signature of like 110/124. Take that, King Crimson. 100 is the most cliché of audiophile music, so think Steely Dan’s AjaPink Floyd’s Dark Side of the MoonThe Eagles’ Hotel CaliforniaFleetwood Mac’s RumoursDire Straits’ Brothers in ArmsMiles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Where I hope for my writing staff to land is somewhere between 50 and 75 percent on that spectrum. Lenny Kravitz, Thievery Corporation, Bob Marley, Earth Wind and Fire, John Coltrane, Foo Fighters – stuff like that. 

My personal challenge as an audiophile writer is not to select review demo music that was most-likely played on cassette tape in my mom’s 1984 Honda Accord, as that dates me quite a bit. It’s just clichéd, and there’s thousands of options that keep me from falling into the same musical rut from my past. The problem is that the majority of the music that exhibitors played at AXPONA was lame and obscure because that is a plight on the hobby that we simply must overcome. The best-sounding room that I heard at AXPONA was the YG Acoustics room. They had their $14,000 floorstanding speakers perfectly matched with their $7,000 sub and running on Bel Canto Black electronics. They were playing some deconstructed wedding-themed music that was beyond random. I know the young recording engineer, Duncan, who had the iPad in his hand and I asked him to fork it over, which he gladly did. I cued up Buena Vista Social Club from his AXPONA playlist. For anybody old enough to have been way into DVD-Audio, you know this gorgeous recording, whichwas one of the best  recordings of that era. Holy shit, did that sound great in a nicely-treated, well-setup, tiny-ass hotel room in Chicago. 

Ending obscure audiophile music demos at audio shows is a needed first step to recruit more diverse audiences to the hobby.

Studies show that people make decisions on what they like – be it another person, a car, art, or whatever – in mere seconds. Music is no different. If somebody is playing Rush’s Moving Pictures or Underworld’s Beaucoup Fish or John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, I’m going in to sit down for a quick listen to their demo, as these are just a few of my favorite records. Conversely, if they are spinning some whacko music that sounds great but is less relatable, I am much less likely to listen. Lastly, don’t be shy about asking the people running a room or at your local stereo store or even your buddy who demoing their audiophile system to change their music up a bit. Don’t be a pain in the ass or a snob about demo music, but, at the same time, don’t miss a chance to hear a system or a component that you want to experience with music that means something to you. You are absolutely not out of line asking to get what you need and want out of an audiophile experience as good ones are too few and far between. 

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Michael Zisserson

“If all you listen to is great recordings, you will mist most of the great music…” This was the first, and most valuable lesson I was taught by one of my audio mentors at the age of 18. It has kept me grounded in music first, and has thrown some very non-demo, demos on my demo list. Even when the recordings aren’t great, and the music is simple and foot-tapping, there is much to be had in a deep listen to plebeian music. Heck, you may even understand WHY these tracks became to popular with the masses! I hate obscure demos. Give me something that isn’t perfect, but recorded well and musically understandable and that’s a win every time. Really enjoyed this one, Jerry.

David Tomsett

I agree, but you’ll find that they won’t play much complex orchestral music, just vocals and a few instruments. They will make it easy for their gear to perform. Anything obscure that will show their speakers at their best.

Christopher

But hopefully, everyone has heard a quartet live and knows Pachelbel Canon in D is supposed to sound like. A well round system can reproduce the feeling of being the room with quartet. Also, I find that being able to cleanly reproduce piano or violin music is a good test of the speaker.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my hardrock and the distortion turned to 11.

Dan

This is very true. That’s why a comprehensive mix of material is needed. Plenty of veteran vendors/manufacturers have it. Most often, all one has to do is ask.

Dan

I think the reason for that is to “attract” new blood/non audiophiles. The vendors ‘perception would be that this is what common human being listens to nowadays, not well recorded jazz, etc. Disclaimer: industry insider.

Dan

And kudos to you for Futureaudiophile.com. Content like yours is greatly needed.

William Moore

Does anyone remember those great recordings made by Sheffield Labs and Telarc way back in the seventies and early eighties. Now there was some great and very listenable demo music. I bought a lot of their albums and still listen to them today!

David

I always asked my client what they specifically listened to. My personal taste or my esoteric recordings are meaningless to the client and may actually move them away from the product. Hearing a familiar or loved piece of music lets them identify with it and thus have a more receptive approach.

Steve Lefkowicz

It’s nice to see so many other people finally understanding this. I’ve been pushing this idea (basically, “play what they want to hear”) since the 1980s.
With rooms playing from Qobuz, each attendee should be able to select a track they can connect with.

jeff kalina

Jerry, With all the costs associated with presenting in a show you assume the companies will choose good
music and play it at reasonable volumes. No they do not. Some play poorly recorded old music that is never
going to show off a system in its best light. I won’t even start on conversations going on while attendees try
to hear the equipment. Organizers need to do a better job educating the exhibitors.

Mark Alfson

In addition, if you want people to be interested in this hobby and your equipment, what better way than to play music the listener knows? Let them hear how much better their music could sound if they began investing in audio gear and stopped listening on their Bluetooth speaker or sound bar.

Playing music for which the listener has no connection seems absurdly stupid.

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